Friday, August 16, 2013

A Visit to the AGO

I don't know if I've changed, or the AGO has. When I was growing up, the Art Gallery of Ontario seemed like a tedious affair, housing a sparse collection distinguished mainly in its Rodin Adam, a sculpture which broader experience reveals is handed out, along with a Maillol nude, to every fledgling art museum by the French Sculptors' Benevolent Society and Lawn Ornament Guild.

find me an art museum that *doesn't* have one of these in the lobby

That, however, was then. The last few times I've visited the AGO, it has appeared transformed - a cosmopolitan museum which, if impoverished in its old masters, is shaped by a sharp eye for exciting work in its academic, modern, and Canadian collections. And some cool model ships.

I have overwhelmingly many impressions and thoughts during any visit to an art museum, and ordinarily despair of writing up a proper account. However, I was at the AGO on Wednesday, and formed four particularly strong impressions, and I am writing this on an eight-hour train ride from Buffalo to New York; so let me see if I can't break my losing streak.

1. First let's consider the 1625, oil-on-wood Evisceration of a Roebuck with a Portrait of a Married Couple (why not?), by Frans Snyders and Cornelis de Vos.

oh my, they really are eviscerating that roebuck, aren't they?

What I was thinking about was the wife's right cheek - painted by Vos, most likely; Snyders was the still-life specialist.

This looks to me like a mistake, recognizable mainly because I've made it myself. As usual, take my claims with a grain of salt.

The mistake is in the far cheek (painting left). What happens is, you paint a face in three-quarters view like this, and you naturally want to make the outlines of the cheeks symmetrical. At the cognitive template level, your brain wants symmetry for faces close to the frontal perspective, even though at the empirical level, your brain understands that the outline is asymmetrical.

So you unconsciously broaden the far cheek, and only recognize that it is way too wide when you step away from the painting a while later. Now you've got this weird lopsided face that needs to be trimmed down on the far side. So you start painting the background inward, shaving away slivers of the cheek. You can see Vos doing it here - the radial white fins of her ruff collar give way to concentric swipes of white paint where he is painting into her overwide cheek.

But, whoopsy daisy, he goes too far. Now he is well and truly screwed. He can pass off white added to white on the collar without anyone noticing, but he can't draw that cheek back out again because her can't match the colors closely enough. I have done this. Next he tries to salvage the situation with one of the only moves still available to him - tweaking the left cheek (picture right) to try to make the sides of the face match.

You see that? He's hiding the original outline under a few strokes representing white bounce light from the collar. I know this trick! It never works. Or at least it doesn't work with people in the aptitude range of me and poor Cornelis de Vos.

How does such a story end? You step away for a few days, and look at the painting with fresh eyes.

And now it seems you were perhaps a little overhasty in your condemnation. It's not so bad. It just about works. It would take a really finicky asshole to be troubled by the error; most viewers will never notice it.

And that's the story of Evisceration of a Roebuck with a Portrait of a Married Couple.

2. Now we turn our attention to Luca Giordano's unfortunate 1663 painting The Toilet of Bathsheba.

Bathsheba's the one whom King David noticed à la toilette, an incident which led to a sticky end for Mr. Bathsheba. In Giordano's painting, Bathsheba makes the classic error of putting on her shoes before her pants, while King David, balcony rear left, has a look-see. But the interesting thing is the faces.

Bathsheba's face is misdrawn in a naive way characteristic of children and pre-revolutionary American painters: her eyes are located far too high, making the top of her cranium look truncated. People like children and colonial Americans make this mistake because, once again, of the brain that knows overriding the eye that sees. These primitive artists know that the eyes are at the "top" of the face, and so they misplace them in their true relation to the head, which is quite a ways down.

This error is only mildly interesting. What's really interesting is that Giordano doesn't make the same mistake with Bathsheba's black attendant. The attendant is much more convincing; her features are placed properly on her head.

Does Giordano know black people way better than white people? Of course not. The very opposite explains the difference. Giordano knows white people so well that he doesn't look at them anymore. He paints what he knows. What he knows happens to be wrong, but his figure is coming as much from mentation as observation, and probably more.

Not so the attendant. Giordano recognizes that he doesn't understand the architecture of her face in its distinctness from white structure, so when he gets his model in the studio, he really looks at her. He doesn't impose what he knows on his drawing. He draws what he sees.

3. Now we spare a thought for Pablo Picasso's impassive but authoritative Nude with Clasped Hands (gum tempera on canvas, 1905-6).

This, the placard informs us, is a rose period painting of Fernande Olivier. That seems fair enough. I've seen this painting a million times, and I probably wouldn't have given it much thought, except this time something about the hands caught my eye.

I had just gotten done discussing this configuration of the hands - a somewhat stilted and unusual configuration - with my dad, in the context of an entirely different kind of artwork.

These are the hands of a standing female figure found at Nippur, carved in Mesopotamia between 2600 and 2340 B.C.

My dad and I were visiting a Mesopotamia exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum and, you know, this is his field, and he's given a lot of thought to this weird hand clasp, which appears in votive statues from Mesopotamia up and down the centuries.

Sumerian votive statues, 2700-2600 B.C.

The degree of similarity to Fernande's pose, and especially to her hands, is significant enough to gnaw at me. I think it's more than nothing. It makes me want to make up a theory of it. So I made up three:

A. Picasso knew this genre of Mesopotamian votive statue and adapted its template for his own purposes. Note that his Fernande, with her relaxed shoulders and elbows, is not praying, as the statues pray, with their tensed shoulders and bent elbows.

B. This pose is a fundamental station of the human figure. This strange clasping of the hands (really, try it; you'd never just think to do it) is some pre-existing archetypical understanding of the hands. The same inspiration which struck the Mesopotamians struck Picasso.

C. It's a coincidental overlap of poses. Picasso didn't know the Mesopotamian version of the pose, and he and Fernande came up with it on their own, and it doesn't mean a damn thing.

Only theory A can really be tested, and I, for one, am volunteering not to test it.

4. One resemblance which is definitely not accidental is between this painting, also at the AGO...

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Bathers, 1890, oil on canvas

...and the Apple Newton MessagePad 110:

Or better still, its charging station:

As an interested party, I would like to clarify here that the two lines which outline a woman in contrapposto, arms raised, form the most beautiful shape in the world. Whatever you're thinking of, my proposal beats it. Don't be coming around here with your golden rectangles and your Mandelbrot sets.

This feminine shape is best appreciated in silhouette or from behind. There is too much *stuff* involved in the front view. One of the great evangelists of this fundamental truth of the world is Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The Musée d'Orsay has another of his little hymns to the shape:

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Jeunes filles au bord de la mer, 1879, oil on canvas

If you look through his work, you'll see it popping up again and again. He is at his best when he paints it. I am always meaning to do it more, but I rarely get around to it. I'm in love with faces. It's tough to do this pose and a face. So I guess I'm not the purest follower of beauty, because I'll almost always opt for faces over the One Shape. One of my rare confrontations with the subject is as follows:

Daniel Maidman, Tree of Knowledge, 2009, oil on canvas, 48"x24"


And those were the main thoughts I wanted to share with you. One last thing. There is at the AGO a sequence of rooms devoted to Henry Moore. I have not given Henry Moore one single thought these many happy years. And yet, I am ashamed to say that on a fresh viewing, I can no longer dismiss him as an overbearing hack. There's something there. I swear to god, I'm losing my fucking edge.


  1. Erm, I clasp my hands like that all the time. How do you clasp your hands?

  2. well, I guess somebody somewhere has to have sumerian genes. But I wonder if it's more of a small/particular shape of hands thing. Or a woman thing - that is how I clasp my hands particularly when they are resting in lap - don't think men do resting hands in lap really, do they?

    1. No, of course not. As you know, men have only kill-hand and jerking-off-hand; all other male hand positions are adaptations of these to sissified activities like painting, opening jars, and smelting iron.

      I realize this qualifies as a completely useless reply. But I also like the idea that you have a perfect combination of Sumerian kinesthetic sense and teensy little Scottish paws for doing that hand position.

      This may remain a mystery, actually, but at least it is not an important one.